Working with anxiety from an existential perspective

An existential approach to counselling does not attempt to eliminate anxiety. It sees anxiety as not something we have but something we are.


The rationale of the existential approach, rather than trying to eliminate anxiety, helps people to strive and be aware of how to face it. The aim is not to run from it, suppress or deny it. The existential approach helps us understand anxiety's meaning.

When we get that awareness, and to some degree acceptance of anxiety, then we can gain the strength and courage to live with it and use it constructively, and in a positive way. In many ways, this helps us to lose the fear that ultimately drives and increases anxiety to the extent that it can destroy our peace of mind and physical health.

Courage is not the capacity to plough on regardless. It is not the absence of fear. Courage is having the capacity to move forward in spite of fear. When you give up the attempts of eliminating anxiety only then do you gain courage. When you start to embrace anxiety and the challenge of living then you can start to live fully. Only then can you explore your possibilities and opportunities.

To dare is to lose your footing momentarily not to dare is to lose yourself.

This is a quote by Soren Kierkegaard an old existential philosopher. My interpretation of it is that to protect ourselves from anxiety we don't dare. This protects us in the short term from anxiety but in the long term it magnifies it to the extent we disconnect and in many ways lose ourselves.

Anxiety is driven by fear. Fear of what others might think. Fear that in some ways something is wrong with you, when in fact the opposite is true. Not having anxiety in stressful life situations could mean there is something wrong with you but we rarely see it like that.

An existential approach to counselling helps make us aware that vulnerability can be a strength whereas in most people's upbringing, it is perceived as a weakness.

When some people feel anxiety and vulnerability they flock to the doctor for a chemical cure that can suppress and distort our anxiety to the point that we never learn or understand its meaning.

Anxiety is our body's way of telling us that something is bothering us. It can be screaming at us that there is something we need to address, something we need to meet head-on. When we can recognise this then we can take control back. Then we can process and understand what our most primal instincts are telling us.

Anxiety is driven by fear. When you strip back the fear it holds no magic power over us. It can become in many ways a friend that guides and warns us that all is not well.

Embracing anxiety by accepting it is the key to controlling it without trying to control it. Trying to control it rarely works. Accepting and embracing anxiety in many ways enables your body to control itself.

To live is to suffer at times, to survive we have to take some sort of meaning out of our suffering. If we can do that and embrace the enviable vulnerability that we will have at times, only then can we learn to survive and increase our understanding of ourselves.

We all have freedom and responsibility to a degree to do what we want to in life. The existential approach to counselling recognises and encourages the individual's capacity for freedom, responsibility and authenticity. Anxiety can rob us of that. It can cause you to disconnect from yourself, others and your world. Anxiety has been described as the dizziness of freedom but that dizziness of freedom can disturb people to the extent that they stop daring, they stop living.

The danger is that you lose yourself.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

- Socrates

There is nothing better than owning yourself.

When we can examine our lives through counselling it can be emotional and disturbing. It can also be inspirational, rewarding and something that can really give you a real understanding of yourself. This can help you protect yourself from most things that come your way in life.

"If you have a why to live for you can bear almost any how" is a quote by Nietzsche from over a hundred years ago. It is still so relevant today. Anxiety can stop us from connecting with our whys. Connection is what saves us.

Medical science uses the word breakdown to describe overwhelming emotions that can cause us to shut down and in some instances never fully recover. Changing the word breakdown to breakthrough is, I feel, one way of alleviating the fear that comes with the word breakdown (broken).

Does anything really break down? Is it our body's way of communicating to us that something is not right? Something is disturbing us? Something needs to be sorted out or changed? When we can listen to what our bodies are telling us then we can explore and examine our lives.

Anxiety does not have to be the enemy, it does not have to be this big scary monster. It's really our body's way of trying to protect us. It's the most primitive instinct we have. It's there to protect us.

Modern society teaches shame. It teaches that vulnerability is weak when in fact the opposite is true. Vulnerability can save us. Recognising and facing our vulnerability can be life-changing.

Anxiety can put us into a state of non-being (losing the ability to be). We think we protect ourselves from anxiety this way when, in fact, it backfires by protecting us in the short term. In the long term it never really works.

To live is to suffer at times, this is enviable. To survive is to find meaning in your suffering. Whatever we go through in life we always have some sort of choice in how we react in every situation we face. Anxiety can rob us of that choice if we let it.

A good example of finding meaning in suffering is that in researching trauma, researchers at Yale University of Medicine found that and were greatly impressed with prisoners of war. In Vietnam, the prisoners were subjected to some of the worst trauma through torture, starvation, disease and solitary confinement. On returning home they developed PTSD and many became suicidal.

Through therapy and gaining an understanding of themselves and what they had been through, many of them came to see it as a growth experience and were able to use that as a meaning. That meaning enables them to move forward and not let their experience rob them of their capacity to be.

Viktor Frankl in his book Man's Search for Meaning found hope and meaning in the Holocaust. He experienced it first-hand. His belief that whatever we go through in life, we always have some sort of choice is based on his belief that meaning trumps everything else in our ability and capacity to survive.

Anxiety is not something we have, it is something we are. Let's examine that.

Finding meaning in your anxiety can be a starting point for accepting it. To see it as something we are makes it easier to find that meaning. Looking anxiety in the eye and risking that vulnerability can ultimately save us. It can be the route to finding meaning through a growth experience.

Anxiety is not an illness. Everything comes from emotion. Emotion is what makes us human. To feel is a good thing, or is it? If we lose the capacity to feel we suppress. In my experience when people suppress emotion it can lead to so many serious mental health problems.

Working from an existential perspective encourages us to feel. If we don't allow ourselves to feel our emotion, we suppress it. When you suppress it for any length of time you end up losing the ability to identify and process it.

When you can't identify it, you can't regulate it. That's when we shut down. Our brains try to protect us. Fight or flight kicks in and we react in our most primitive way. By shutting down we may protect ourselves in the short term. In the long term, we suffer because we never allow ourselves to process or understand what our bodies are telling us.

Accepting that vulnerability and emotion can save us. It can be the first step to believing that "I matter". It's an act of self-compassion that saves us. Only then can you explore and understand yourself through self-reflection that can enable you to really know yourself.

Existential therapy makes us aware of acceptance, awareness and choices. It focuses on connection and communication. Freedom and responsibility are encouraged and explored.

Follow not me but you is the message. The courage to create may be the outcome. There is nothing better than owning yourself.

Sartre said "We are nothing but what we make of ourselves" In many ways, I feel he is right. To be the architect of your own life takes courage. I repeat that courage is not the absence of fear but the capacity to move forward in spite of it.

Counselling from an existential perspective can save us, it can open up a new way of thinking and reacting that can enable us to come to terms with anxiety by taking meaning out of it.

Emotion can destroy us but it can also save us if we make the choice.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Antrim, BT41 4NH
Written by Raymond Murray, MBACP (Accredited)
Antrim, BT41 4NH

Welcome to my Profile. My counselling is all about you. It will help to give you a better understanding of yourself and whatever you are going through.When you can do this, then answers can be found and things can get better.I provide counselling for individuals, couples and families for all types...

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